For Yolima Otálora, teaching a language goes far beyond helping her students memorize new words and learn to form sentences.
Her mission remains the same, 25 years after founding a language academy in Phoenix: to use language as a tool to break down barriers and connect people with other cultures.
“Learning a language is very, very valuable, and learning Spanish, which is a language in high demand, is also valuable,” said Otálora.
As soon as she arrived in the United States from Colombia, accompanied by her husband and daughters, Otálora found herself facing a society enriched by a great diversity of cultures and languages, which was just beginning to take steps towards inclusion. She quickly became aware of the needs of these populations, and in particular those of the Latino community, today the largest ethnic minority in the United States.
A visionary Latina who took with her the language studies she acquired in Colombia, Otálora quickly began teaching Spanish as a tool to meet the needs of her community and foster diversity.
Soon after arriving in Arizona, she began teaching Spanish in schools, community centers, and universities. And although she was not considering starting her own school at the time, she admitted that she was not entirely comfortable with traditional teaching methods, which she said are generally ” mechanical ”and“ decontextualized ”.
“I wanted people to have the experience of emotionally developing the acquisition of a new language, especially our own,” she said.
And this is the reason that led her to create Interlingua, a Spanish school on Seventh Street and Camelback Road that she likes to call “a little piece of Latin America”.
“How to transmit beyond words? “
For Otálora, learning to speak Spanish is not just about “memorizing and repeating”.
“The acquisition of a language must be a process of love. It’s an emotional process, ”she said. “By approaching the language in this way, (the students) gain elements of respect, of empathy.”
And to achieve her goal, Otálora has sought to convey the essence of Latin American culture through the activities she offers at Interlingua, which range from reading sessions to immersion programs in Latin American countries.
But she doesn’t just do it for the students who come to see her individually. It seeks to make this pedagogy available to city and state employees, in particular law enforcement.
One of the programs offered by Interlingua is aimed at municipal services, such as firefighters, police, emergency call operators and other institutions that respond to dangerous situations.
It is very important to train them to identify emergency situations when they receive calls in Spanish, according to Otálora, as Arizona has a significant percentage of residents who speak only Spanish.
According to the Pew Research Center, in 2017, about 30% of the entire Hispanic population in the United States was not fluent in English. But the problem goes beyond these communities, explained Otálora.
When a policeman finds himself in a dangerous situation, “if a policeman can speak Spanish, he can save his life and the lives of others,” she said.
For example, Otálora recounted an experience in which emergency line operators received a call in Spanish from a woman asking for help with a heart attack. Operators sent police instead of paramedics, Otálora said, because they did not understand what she meant by attack.
“It can be a life or death situation,” she said.
Verónica Villanueva, who has worked with Otálora since the start of Interlingua, also stressed the importance of this work with city staff.
“In all services, such as health or mental health, people who do not speak English as a mother tongue have many disadvantages,” Villanueva said. “It is very important that the staff who help the community know how to communicate in Spanish.”
For Otálora, the need to know Spanish in these situations is essential, but its importance is not limited to emergencies. Teaching Spanish to the security services can also help the state better embrace diversity, she says.
She said facilitating communication between the Spanish-speaking community and authorities can help build trust, which would help those populations turn to corresponding staff when needed.
Not only that, but by learning Spanish, said Otálora, state institutions address a language and culture that was previously neglected, helping to break down barriers of fear that can lead to discriminatory acts.
“The unknown is scary,” Yolima said. “For this reason, coexistence with communities through language is very important.”
“Perfectly bilingual”: the Utopia of Otálora
By teaching Spanish, Otálora also aims to teach students to appreciate and embrace it within the context of the cultural diversity of the United States, and in particular Arizona, where more than a third of the population speaks Spanish.
“We all have a utopia. My idea, for example, is that a state like Arizona, a city like Phoenix, could be perfectly bilingual, ”she said.
And that is why Otálora believes that his work is not only important for those who are foreign to the Latino culture, but also with the different members of these Latino communities who are represented at Interlingua.
Otálora, on his behalf, has been involved in anti-discrimination and inclusion causes. And when she can, she says, she includes Interlingua in her activism and works as an institution to support social justice and the defense of the rights of the Latino population.
Otálora arranged for the Colombian Consul General to come to Phoenix and organize conferences and meetings at Interlingua’s facilities. The closest seat to the Colombian Consulate is in Los Angeles. Otálora’s work has therefore made it easier for Colombians in Arizona to access consulate services.
Otálora has also offered jobs to Latinos from all walks of life, from political refugees to migrants who have suffered persecution.
Villanueva saw the work Otálora did – how his strategy of sharing culture through art and literature has helped students of all ages become fluent in Spanish.
“It’s not just about learning the language and how to say things, but also about learning the culture, about learning to appreciate,” Villanueva said. “It’s amazing to see this process.”
These people became not only teachers of Spanish, but also friends of Otálora, whom she remembers fondly. Each, she said, has added one more piece to the great puzzle that makes up the different cultures of Latin America.
This is why Otálora’s objective is to build in Arizona a political vehicle aimed at welcoming Spanish as an instrument of progress towards democracy and inclusion.
“The way we think about the world becomes language,” she said. “So to pretend that there is only one way to see the world, it seems to me that impoverishes life.”
This story is part of the Faces of Arizona series. Have any comments or ideas on who we should cover? Send them to publisher Kaila White at [email protected].
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